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The novel coronavirus is impacting Latinos at disproportionate rates statewide and in Orange County, because of a lack of access to health care, preexisting health conditions and crowded housing. 


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“Unfortunately, before COVID-19, they’re in jobs that are just not the best jobs in the world and they did not have the greatest access to healthcare in the world. So it becomes a problem in a pandemic. The solution, of course, is better health care, living wages … insurance and more care going to preventative care for their health problems,” said Leo Chavez, an anthropologist at University of California, Irvine. 

Chavez, who’s researched immigration, health care for the Latino community and other community issues, said much of the low-income jobs in restaurants, hotels and other service industry positions are staffed by Latinos. The jobs increase their exposure to virus, he said. 

“They’re blue collar jobs, dealing with hospitality, with food, going to people’s homes, taking care of their yards. All of these jobs that sort of don’t have built in things that other people, particularly citizens, have, like paid health care,” Chavez said. 

Pedro, a Santa Ana grocery truck owner, makes one of his stops in Artesia Pilar neighborhood in Santa Ana. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

According to the latest available statewide data, over 54 percent of all cases are in the Latino community, along with 38 percent of deaths, while Latinos make up just under 39 percent of the state’s population. Just over 5 percent of cases are marked “unknown.” 

In Orange County, 34 percent of cases are in the Latino community, along with 31 percent of deaths, while they make up over 34 percent of the population. The Latino case count and death number has somewhat stabilized representative to the population over the past few days. The County’s data shows 29 percent of cases are of an unknown ethnicity, while 13 percent of deaths are unknown also. 

For comparison, whites consist of 40 percent of OC’s population, but make up 19 percent of cases and 32 percent of the deaths. 

America Bracho, CEO of the Santa Ana-based Latino Health Access, said many of the workers don’t have adequate virus protection on the job. 

“A majority of our community members work in the service industry — they work in the grocery stores,” Bracho said. “They aren’t protected. We are seeing it here in California, we are seeing it in the nation. I mean if the doctors and nurses don’t have enough protective equipment, imagine our workers.”

Bracho said the nonprofit Latino Health Access has 40 community workers who live in the Latino neighborhoods everywhere in OC from Santa Ana and Anaheim to San Juan Capistrano to help connect the community to health care and other vital resources, like food stamp applications.

Left to right: Kayleigh Levitt,26, Maria Ceja,24, Valeria Esqueda, 22, Silvia Avendaño, 55, and Yoselinda Mendoza, 28, walk through Santa Ana neighborhoods on May 26, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

“So no one is telling us this story, we are living it in those neighborhoods,” Bracho said. “We are first responders in our own right.”  

Chavez and Bracho said the virus is hitting the Latino community hard because many people already had health problems, like obesity or diabetes. 

“Our community is super, super impacted by chronic diseases, even before coronavirus,” Bracho said. “So you actually have kids at 14 who have cardiovascular problems. These are the underlying factors that have to do with many, many years of social and structural neglect.” 

Chavez said many immigrants come to the country healthy, but the access to readily available junk food and fast food, coupled with a lack of medical care, jeopardizes their health. 

“They assimilate, and assimilation could be bad for their health,” Chavez said. “With more time in the US, the more likely they are to be obese and the more likely they are to have health issues like diabetes, and as we’ve seen with COVID-19 here, those are the two problems that exacerbate COVID.” 

Many Latino families live with aunts, uncles, grandparents or other families throughout OC, which puts the community at higher risk of contracting and spreading the virus, Bracho said.

“They can’t follow the recommendations … because they live in overcrowded environments. And they have, let’s say one family in a two bedroom apartment — there’s another family in the other bedroom,” Bracho said. “Your control is minimal in terms of space — your inability to isolate. So if someone gets sick, forget it. Everybody gets sick. Where are they going to go?” 

County officials said sick people in crowded homes can be moved to one of the hotels OC is leasing. 

“This is typically determined by availability of separate bedroom and bathroom, but we work with them on their particular circumstances to see if isolation can be worked out. If they can’t safely isolate at home, we do offer alternate housing options including the hotels the County is leasing,” reads an email from County CEO Frank Kim’s office. 

Santa Ana residents talk to the Latino Health Access community organizers on May 23, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Latinos make up more than half of Anaheim’s 352,000 residents at 54 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau estimates. And nearly 77 percent of Santa Ana’s nearly 333,000 residents are Latino, according to the estimates

UCI professor and epidemiologist Andrew Noymer said the two cities have some of the highest rates of daily virus case increases. 

“Not only do these two cities have the highest case counts and they are accounting for one-third of the confirmed cases in the county, but also they’re growing — 4.1 percent per day in Santa Ana, based on a 7 day average. And in Anaheim, 3.6 percent per day,” Noymer said. 

Noymer compiled virus data using the County’s official numbers and did a seven day average going back from May 17. 

“Both of the cities are above the County average, but they’re also driving the County average,” Noymer said, noting the countywide average daily growth in cases is 3 percent.  

Anaheim City Councilman Jose Moreno said there needs to be more outreach to the Latino community and other immigrant communities to let residents know what services and benefits are available from the cities, county and state. Pairing up with school districts would be a good place to start, he said. 

“I’ve struggled with trying to get information out from the County to constituents here in Anaheim. We do have a robust staff in our city that can provide translation to a lot of our resources, but a lot of our members of our community are plugged into other networks,” Moreno said. 

Moreno is president of Los Amigos, a community group that meets to address issues affecting the Latino community. 

“That’s why it’s so critical that cities and school districts work together because school districts have become really adept to reach out,” he said. “It behooves us as a city, let alone the County, to learn to partner with our school systems and how to best reach families. They know how to do it.” 

OC is currently expanding its outreach efforts, according to an email from County CEO Frank Kim’s office. 

“At the present time staff from four County Departments – OC Health Care Agency, OC Community Resources, Social Services Agency and CEO – are working collaboratively to provide even greater outreach to the Latino community in regard to testing outreach, social services, veterans and seniors services,” reads the email. 

Former UCI medical school dean and infectious disease expert Tom Cesario said the conditions that expose many members of the Latino community to the virus could likely be seen in other groups, especially low income, if the data was also categorized based on income levels.

“We collect this not on the basis of socioeconomic status, we collect it on the basis of cultural heritage,” Cesario said. “I think that would be an important question to find out whether it’s just a Latino issue … or for those struggling socioeconomically.” 

He said it also can affect immigrants of all stripes.

“In my career over the years, oftentimes with immigrants who are struggling, we had housing situations where there were multiple immigrants living in the same house just to have a roof over their heads,” Cesario said. “That kind of congregate setting makes it a lot easier to pass the virus.” 

Latinos also face a high risk of unemployment due to the stay home orders, which closed huge swaths of the economy in an effort to slow the spread of the virus so it didn’t overwhelm the hospitals. 

The business shutdowns came at a heavy price. 

California could see a 25 percent jobless rate this year and over 4.6 million people have applied for unemployment, Gov. Gavin Newsom said last week. 

Middle, Moises Vazquez, 39, talks to his co-worker, who is driving the Latino Health Access Van on May 23, 2020. During the drive they stop at mobile grocery trucks located along Minnie street in Santa Ana to inform the public about Coronavirus resources and also hand out Census materials. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

A report from the Economic Roundtable report released last month found Latinos disproportionately face a higher risk of unemployment. 

“Latinos face much greater risks of unemployment than any other ethnic group – 57 percent compared to from 36 to 39 percent for other ethnicities,” reads the report. 

Nearly 40 percent of the state’s workforce is white and Latinos make up 37 percent of workers, according to the report. 

“Many households already have unpaid rent, bills and loan obligations. Half of California’s workers earn $40,000 or less a year. These workers are likely to have little or no financial reserves and many are encumbered with debt. Workers in this group who are unemployed, or become unemployed, need immediate wage replacement,” reads the analysis. 

Bracho said Latino Health Access has been driving a van around neighborhoods with messages blaring, informing people where to go for help with unemployment insurance, rent payment questions or to get medical insurance. The 40 community workers, who live in the neighborhoods, are also helping the communities. 

“We had a huge database and so you can imagine just in the first three weeks, we directly called 7,000 people … and we got in touch with them via Facebook, Twitter, instagram,” Bracho said. “And we started a food bank (in Santa Ana) for people that don’t have cars.” 

County officials are also moving to collaborate outreach efforts with Latino Health Access and other community groups. 

“[OC Health Care Agency] is in the process of outreach to Latino Health Access and Chispa but our relationship has not been formalized at this time,” reads the email.

Westminster City Councilman Sergio Contreras also said there’s a lack of communication to the Latino community, and other immigrant communities. 

“What I’m noticing now, as this work continues, is just the lack of services and healthcare information to the community — it’s just not there,” Contreras said. 

Contreras is a senior director at OC United Way, a nonprofit that provides critical support services and food to the county’s neediest communities. 

United Way has been filling some gaps, Contreras said. 

“We’re definitely doing our best to help,” Contreras said. “Connecting people to the right agencies for services … we’ve helped a number of people with unemployment — how to file unemployment claims.”

Like Bracho, Contreras and Moreno said many Latino families live in dense situations, often in multi-family homes that make it impossible for someone to quarantine if they get the virus. 

“When someone catches it, how do you stop it when you live with three or four families?” Contreras said. “A lot of these families don’t have a medical home. They don’t have a doctor they see regularly.”

Cruz said it’s imperative to increase the Latino community’s access to medical care and generally increase testing because the virus can spread quickly. 

“Society is only as strong as its weakest part. If you let some members of society get sick, it affects everybody. Our main policy concern should be the health of everyone.” 

Spencer Custodio is a Voice of OC staff reporter. You can reach him at scustodio@voiceofoc.org. Follow him on Twitter @SpencerCustodio.

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